Anime has never been a big fandom for me. I've watched, even enjoyed, my fair share (Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the Studio Gibli films) but by and large as an art form it passes me by. I blame Studio Gibli, to be honest, once you've seen Spirited Away there's really nowhere to go but down, is there?
Anyway, Fairy Tail and why I think of it as a bit of a guilty pleasure. You see, I'm as guilty as any non-fan of mocking long-form anime's tropes: fanservice episodes, filler, overblown magic attacks hyper-competent child protagonists... well, the whole series structure of Naruto, basically.
Yes, Naruto, which isn't as bad as a lot of non-fans make it sound but does have systemic flaws. Most of these can be put down to it being a long-form anime based on a long-form manga that's still running. Filler arcs, flashbacks and over-extended fight scenes are a necessary evil to stop the anime overtaking the manga. It makes the pacing of the series brutal, though.
Yet here I am about to extol the virtues of a series that, on the surface, is rather similar. Fairy Tail is about a guild of wizards who take jobs from the civilian population, usually combat-oriented, for money. This structure is basically indistinguishable from Naruto's Leaf Village set-up. The core cast are three young wizards from the guild: Natsu, Lucy and Gray. Natsu and Gray have a passive-aggressive rivalry that turns just aggressive-aggressive at random intervals (see also Naruto and Sasuki) and Lucy is the outwardly least mature, least competent character who muddles her way to success (either early Naruto or Sakura, depending on your reading of the character).
Where things differ is that Fairy Tail takes a very Carry On approach to its characters' roles.
The Carry On films, if you've not heard of them, were a series of film parodies that ran from the 1950s to the 1970s. Each one takes a known genre, populates it with all the expected characters but plays them all for laughs. I saw one over Christmas that was a parody of a Foreign Legion movie and had Kenneth Williams as the Camp Commandant (I know, not too obvious) and he played the part with a ridiculous German accent except in private the character spoke with Williams' normal voice because the character was an Englishman putting on a stereotypical German accent because that's what a Foreign Legion Commandant is “meant” to sound like. Having a strict German officer in charge of a Foreign Legion outpost isn't even a joke, it's a trope and that's where the gag comes from.
So we have Lucy, our blonde, busty, over-sexualised heroine who is also a powerful wizard of the summoner type except whenever she tries to get her way through flirting or flashing her cleavage it turns out the other character just doesn't fancy her. We have Natsu, who is constantly bigged up as the most powerful fire mage anyone who fights him has ever seen except that he keeps being floored by horrendous motion sickness. We have Gray, the attractive young man you'd expect to get shirtless every now and again for fanservice but who doesn't need any contrived plot reason to do so, he just continuously and randomly strips as a running gag. Literally, the shot will leave him for a moment then turn back to him in his boxers or less for no explained reason.
Then there's the Fairy Tail Guild itself, which is based out of a pub and whose members have a reputation for collateral damage above and beyond the call of duty, drunken behaviour and general rowdiness. One character, Mirajane, is apparently a powerful and famous mage but instead of the sort of epochal destiny you'd expect such a character to have her ambitions don't seem to run to more than running the bar and doing a bit of glamour modelling on the side.
The resulting series is fun and utterly charming. I doubt I'll sit through the full 170+ episodes but its a better than decent way to waste twenty minutes between bits of housework.
(This post is indebted to Philip Sandifer and his scientific breakdown ofhow Carry On films work from his TARDIS Eruditorum series).